The week before Christmas may go down as the strangest and most revealing of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Over just a few days, his sheer
- venality and
were laid bare. But it was also a time for Trumpian good deeds that allowed us a glimpse at how he might have governed if he had been shrewder — and had a genuine interest in the good that government can do.
.. Let’s start with his display of gangsterism and utter indifference to the law in a tweet Sunday calling his former lawyer Michael Cohen a “Rat” for telling the truth about various matters, including his dealings with Russia to build a Trump tower in Moscow and the president’s payoffs before the 2016 election to hide his alleged sexual conduct.
“Rat,” as many have pointed out, is a legendary organized-crime epithet, and we really are gazing at something like the Trump Family Syndicate. On Tuesday, the New York state attorney general, Barbara Underwood, forced the closure of the Donald J. Trump Foundation for what she described as “a shocking pattern of illegality.” She said the foundation functioned “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.”
And, yes, this was an all-in-the-family thing. The foundation’s board consistedof Trump himself, his three adult children and the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg. Incidentally, if you wonder why Trump hates the media so much, consider that it was the painstaking work of The Post’s David Fahrenthold that first blew the lid off Trump’s scamming disguised as charity.
.. But that wasn’t all. Two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee made it abundantly clear that Trump was Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate in 2016 — and remained Putin’s guy after he won.
This is a key civil rights issue of our time. (Voting rights is another, and on this problem Trump is pushing entirely in the wrong direction.) The long sentences the new law would roll back hit African Americans the hardest. That’s particularly true of the disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine sellers that the legislation would mitigate.
It’s often observed that Trump has few discernible political principles. A problem in many respects, this did give Trump enormous flexibility when he came into office. What if he had governed in other areas with the same eye toward bipartisan agreement that led him to criminal-justice reform?
Imagine a big infrastructure bill or a far less regressive approach to tax reform. Democrats would have been hard-pressed not to work with him. Instead, Trump just kept dividing us and stoking his base. He lazily went along with traditional conservatives on taxes and corporate lobbyists in the regulatory sphere because governing was never really the point. And now, he is reaping the whirlwind.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an appearance on NBC’ News’s “Meet the Press” that Thursday’s guilty plea by Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, raises the question of whether Russia continues to have leverage over Trump.
.. “Does the Kremlin have a hold on him over other things?” Nadler said. “There certainly was leverage during the campaign period and until recently because they knew he was lying, they knew he had major business dealings or that Cohen on his behalf had major business dealings.”
.. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Sunday that “most Republicans who were about to nominate Donald Trump in the summer of ’16 would probably have thought it was a relevant fact” that Trump was still trying to do business with Russia at the time.
.. “What I find particularly interesting with the revelation of Cohen’s plea is that he’s saying he lied to protect then-candidate Trump’s stories that he had nothing to do with Russia,”
.. “So, the president seemed to already be changing his story a little bit and say, ‘well, it was all legal.’ ”
The Moscow project marked the culmination of 30 years of interest by Mr. Trump in establishing a foothold in Russia and nearby Ukraine. The push involved more than 20 separate developments. Though ultimately none came to fruition, one advanced far enough to leave a giant hole, eight stories down in the ground before being abandoned. The proposed plans for the 2016 project included giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse, long-time Trump associate Felix Sater said in an interview. Mr. Cohen loved the idea, Mr. Sater said.
As Russians sought a safe haven for their money abroad, Trump properties grew as a go-to brand for Russians buying in the U.S….
Florida developer Gil Dezer, who with his dad licensed the Trump name for towers in three Florida locations, says more than 300 condominium buyers in their Sunny Isles towers alone came from the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Trump’s children joined in the hunt.
.. Plans were drawn up to renovate and rebrand the Stalin-era Sovietsky Hotel as Ivanka Hotel, says one person who was involved in the project, which included a store that would sell Ms. Trump’s jewelry line. Ms. Trump launched her jewelry line the next year, in the fall of 2007.
.. Mr. Chigirinsky says he put feelers out to Mr. Trump for what he planned to be the biggest construction project that Moscow had seen since Joseph Stalin’s time. The developer says he envisioned a 118-floor, Norman Foster-designed tower near the Moscow River with enough office and living space to hold 30,000 people.
.. According to a person who works in a senior role at Crocus Group, Messrs. Trump and Agalarov agreed that Mr. Agalarov would build a series of 12 buildings near his Crocus properties. This new development would be called Manhattan, and at its center would be two towers—one named for Mr. Agalarov, the other for Mr. Trump.
.. As Mr. Trump stumped on the campaign trail, his representatives stayed on the hunt for property.
Mr. Cohen sent an email to the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, in January 2016, asking for assistance in arranging building approvals. He told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence he never got a response. On Thursday, he admitted that was a lie and talks continued until June, by which time Mr. Trump was the presumed Republican candidate and was nominated the following month at the RNC’s convention.
on Thursday, Cohen admitted that this had been a lie; he acknowledged that he had continued to negotiate on Trump’s behalf well into 2016, until at least June, when Trump was already the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee. In other words, while Trump was running for President, his company was simultaneously (and secretly) negotiating with Russia to build a tower. Since Putin and his government effectively control all such developments in Russia, they held the fate of the project in their hands. As I wrote in the magazine in February, Trump had dreamed of building in Moscow for decades, and had travelled to the Russian capital as far back as the nineteen-eighties to try to make it happen.
.. The timing of Cohen’s guilty plea is significant. It seems that the prosecution team, led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, delayed Cohen’s admission of guilt until after Trump and his legal team had submitted the President’s written answers to Mueller’s questions, which he did earlier this month. Mueller surely asked Trump about the Moscow negotiation, and the President’s answers were likely locked in before he and his lawyers could factor in Cohen’s admissions
.. If those answers were to conflict with Cohen’s latest version of events, it would potentially be a matter of great peril for the President.
.. The charging document from the guilty plea, prepared by the Mueller office, shows that Cohen’s account is corroborated by multiple contemporaneous e-mails between him and an “Individual 2,” who is likely Felix Sater, a frequent Trump business associate. (Sater is not named in the document.)
.. It’s true that Trump had the right to do business in Russia during the time when he was a candidate, but the public also had a right to know where his true financial interests lay. It would have been highly relevant to the public to learn that Trump was negotiating a business deal with Russia at the same time that he was proposing to change American policy toward that country. Not only was the public deprived of this information but Cohen’s guilty plea indicates that voters were actively misled about Trump’s interests.
.. That is what is so important about Thursday morning’s news—it says that while Trump was running for President, he was doing his private business, not the public’s business. Trump may believe that his interest is the national interest, but it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.
A new Mueller court filing describes how Michael Cohen negotiated with the Kremlin about a Moscow business deal during the 2016 campaign.
And according to the document, Cohen spoke to Trump about the deal more than three times during that period, and asked both Trump and other senior campaign officials about a Trump trip to Russia in connection with the deal.
Cohen is pleading guilty to lying to Congress by saying these negotiations had ended by January 2016 and by denying that he spoke to Trump about them.
The details that emerge in the document are fascinating and rich.
But the main takeaway is that Cohen and others in the Trump organization were actively doing a Russia deal that linked Trump’s emerging presidential candidacy with his business interest in a Moscow Trump Tower. And Trump knew about it, to a degree yet to be revealed.
Until now, many have speculated that there must be some link between Trump’s business interests in Russia and his campaign conduct. The Cohen plea provides more concrete evidence of such a link.
Starting in September 2015, the Trump Organization was pursuing a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen was working on making the deal happen.
In mid-January of 2016, someone described as “a U.S. citizen third-party intermediary” and identified only as “Individual 2” suggested to Cohen that he contact Putin’s press secretary for “approvals” from the Russian government.
Cohen emailed Putin’s press secretary twice, on Jan. 14 and Jan. 16, 2016.
On Jan. 20, Cohen got a call from the press secretary’s assistant. They spoke for 20 minutes, and Cohen described the deal.
The next day, Jan. 21, Individual 2 wrote to Cohen that he should call them about Putin, because “they called today.”
That began a period of negotiations lasting six months. Apparently, the Russians’ goal was to get Trump to visit Russia and meet Putin. Cohen asked Trump and other campaign officials about Trump traveling to Russia for the meeting. Cohen would go to Russia ahead of time to negotiate the details.
In May, things heated up. Individual 2 emailed Cohen explaining the state of play. “I had a chat with Moscow,” he wrote. “ASSUMING the trip does happen the question is before or after the convention … Obviously the pre-meeting trip (you only) can happen anytime you want but the 2 big guys where [sic] the question. I said I would confirm and revert.”
This email makes clear that there was a close connection between Trump’s status as a candidate and the visit.
Cohen wrote back about “My trip before Cleveland” — where the Republican national convention would be held starting on July 18. Trump would travel to Russia “once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
Over the next month, Individual 2 sent Cohen the paperwork for a visa, which Cohen seems to have filled out.
The trip looked like it was a go to Cohen, but it was called off around June 14, 2016, when Cohen met Individual 2 at Trump Tower to tell him it wasn’t happening. According to Cohen, the real estate deal was also off at that point.
The document doesn’t say how or why Cohen’s trip was canceled. The most logical possibility is surely that Trump’s campaign advisers told him that he couldn’t go to Moscow after becoming the Republican nominee.
Trump and his supporters will no doubt insist that Cohen and Individual 2 were freelancing, not really representing Trump or the campaign. But the fact that Cohen kept Trump in the loop by asking him about possible travel to Russia strongly suggests that Trump knew that the negotiations over the Moscow Trump Tower were continuing during this period.
Trump supporters might add that it isn’t surprising to discover that Trump didn’t stop his business negotiations with Russia just because he was running for president. Yet it remains significant that those negotiations were happening with Putin’s office directly, not just with real estate developers in Moscow.
Trump supporters can also point out that the deal was canceled. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the deal was killed not because Trump realized it was wrong but because outside advisers told him it would look bad.
Cohen’s latest revelations on their own don’t constitute evidence of a crime or impeachable offense by Trump. However, they do show that Trump was part of a negotiation that linked his status as a candidate to his business interests in Russia. They bring Mueller’s team an important step closer to explaining Trump’s Russia ties during the campaign.
.. Prosecutors told the judge Mr. Cohen downplayed to investigators his contacts with the Russian government. They said Mr. Cohen had a 20-minute conversation with a Kremlin representative about the proposed deal, but he told Congress that after emailing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top press official for help in January 2016, he never got a response from the Kremlin... Mr. Cohen’s false statements were partly aimed at concealing his discussions with Mr. Trump’s family members within the Trump Organization about the project.. Mr. Cohen also lied about possible travel to Russia for the project during the campaign, he said. Mr. Cohen told Congress he had discussed the proposal with Mr. Trump on three occasions and that he “never considered asking” Mr. Trump to travel to Russia for the project. In fact, prosecutors said, Mr. Cohen asked Mr. Trump about traveling to Russia and asked a senior campaign official about the matter.Prosecutors also said Mr. Cohen agreed to travel to Russia, which he had told Congress he never agreed to do. Mr. Cohen said Thursday the trip did not happen, and that he has never visited Russia... A list of questions the special counsel provided to the president’s legal team earlier this year asked specifically about his communications with Mr. Cohen about Russian real-estate projects during the campaign.. Under his first plea deal, Mr. Cohen and the government agreed to a sentence of between about four years and five years in prison. The false-statement charge carries a maximum of five years in prison... On Thursday, Mr. Cohen said he also lied by asserting the Moscow project efforts had ended in January 2016, when they continued through June 2016. Mr. Trump became the Republican Party’s effective nominee a month earlier... prosecutors said Mr. Cohen minimized the links between the Moscow project and Mr. Trump to give the false impression that the deal talks had ended before the 2016 Iowa caucus, in an attempt to limit the ongoing Russia investigations.
Mr. Trump on Thursday called Mr. Cohen a “weak person” and accused him of “lying” to get a reduced sentence.
.. “there would have been nothing wrong” if he had done it. He said he opted not to do the project because he was “focused on running for president.”
During the campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly said he didn’t have business dealings with Russia.
.. Both Mr. Cohen and another Trump associate, Mr. Sater—identified in the court papers Thursday as “Individual-2”—said in emails obtained by investigators that they planned to enlist top Russian officials’ help for the project.
.. In January 2016, Mr. Cohen sought help from Mr. Putin’s top press official in arranging the deal
.. Mr. Cohen met with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in October 2017. The interviews focused largely on his efforts to build the Trump Tower in Moscow. In his statement for the Senate Intelligence Committee last year, Mr. Cohen wrote the proposal was “solely a real estate deal and nothing more.”
Business deals, affairs, Russia ties—the president’s former fixer knows all.
This marks what promises to be a decisive moment in not only the Trump-Russia scandal but all the Trump scandals (known and unknown), for Cohen appears to have been involved in almost every aspect of Trump’s deeds and misdeeds.
.. With Cohen blowing the whistle, Mueller and other prosecutors will end up with a symphony of leads. After all, he likely has inside information on each of the three rings of the Trump scandal circus:
- the Russia affair,
- the business affairs,
- the affairs affair.
.. Make a Venn diagram of all this, and Cohen is dead center. This ex-consigliere poses a triple threat to the godfather he once ruthlessly served
.. Let’s start with Russia. Cohen intersects with the known narrative in at least two ways. He was there when Trump cut a deal with Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov and his pop-star son Emin to hold the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013. When Trump gathered with the Agalarovs in Las Vegas in June 2013 to formalize their partnership, Cohen accompanied the celebrity businessman and was part of a celebratory dinner at a high-end restaurant. That is, Cohen was present at the creation of the bond forged between Trump and this Putin-friendly oligarch. (Also in attendance was an Agalarov associate who had been linked to Russian money laundering.) This could well be significant for investigators because it was the Trump-Agalarov connection that led to the now notorious Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016—when Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, then the campaign chairman, met with a Russian emissary whom they were told would provide them dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a secret Kremlin plot to help Trump.
.. When the meeting became public in July 2017, Trump Jr. released a statement falsely claiming that the meeting merely had covered Russian adoption policy. Trump’s involvement in the drafting of that inaccurate statement has been a key issue.
.. In January, Trump’s lawyers sent a letter to Mueller noting that Trump had dictated his son’s response. This raised the question of whether Trump Jr. had lied to a Senate committee when he previously said during private congressional testimony that his father had not played a vital role in concocting the statement.
.. But this letter also highlighted other potential problems for Trump: Did he lie when he publicly said he had no prior knowledge of the meeting, and did he direct potential witnesses in the Mueller investigation to stick to a false cover story? Meaning, did the president engage in obstruction of justice?.. Cohen, though, was directly involved in another key interaction between Trump and Russia during the campaign. From September 2015 through January 2016, he handled secret negotiations between Trump and a Russian company to develop a luxury Trump tower in Moscow. The middleman for these talks was Felix Sater, a onetime stock swindler who had done business with Trump in the 2000s and who was a boyhood pal of Cohen. The deal was odd in that the Russian construction company had no previous experience developing such a property. Though the CEO of this company declared he was the sole owner of the firm, the company, as Michael Isikoff and I reported in Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, was actually owned by three off-shore companies, including one controlled by a Cypriot lawyer deeply involved in Russian finance... While Trump was trying to pull off this project, he said nothing in public about the venture and campaigned as an “America First” nationalist candidate. Throughout this stretch, Trump consistently refused to criticize Russian leader Vladimir Putin, without telling voters that he was pursuing a Moscow project that Sater told Cohen would be underwritten by a bank partially owned by the Kremlin... Given that the project would not proceed if the Russian government said nyet, this was a stunning conflict of interest—perhaps one of the most scandalous personal financial conflicts of modern US political history... he certainly is familiar with the details of the hush-money deals set up for porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who each claim they had an affair with Trump. One critical question is whether these payments were made to keep the women quiet because their revelations could harm Trump’s electoral chances... For investigators zeroing in on the keep-quiet payoffs, Cohen is the man... Trump’s reputation as a businessman is not one of probity and prudence. He has long had—and lied about—business connections to organized crime... In 2010, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., opened an investigation into whether Trump, Trump Jr., and Ivanka Trump had committed fraud related to the selling of units in Trump SoHo, a 46-story luxury condominium-hotel.In 2012, the probe was dropped. Vance had received campaign donations from Trump’s personal lawyer, but he has claimed that had no bearing on the case... A sketchy deal that Trump began in 2014 to develop a Trump Hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act... As a friend of Cohen points out, Cohen “worked in an environment that was total chaos. People were constantly running in and out of Trump’s office. The man had a 30-second attention span. Everyone knows everything. Everyone is talking. And there are no secrets.”.. In the middle of Hurricane Donald, Cohen was as close to the mast as anyone. He may well know of Trump actions deserving of investigation that prosecutors for Mueller and the US attorney in New York have never taken a gander at.If Cohen ends up a cooperative witness, one question will be how far federal prosecutors want to—or are willing to—dig into Trump’s business. A whole new terrain could be wide open for exploration... a lawyer who worked for the Trump Organization told an acquaintance of mine, “My job boils down to doing two things. First there is this: I say, ‘Mr. Trump, you can’t do that. You really can’t do that, Mr. Trump.’ Then I say, ‘Mr. Trump, why did you do that?’” Cohen was not that type of attorney. He was the handyman who came in after one of the regular lawyers had gone through those two steps—a Mr. Fix-it for a rule-bending executive... Cohen has been compared by some to John Dean, the Nixon White House lawyer who eventually testified that Nixon was in on the Watergate cover-up and who became a quasi-hero of that scandal... No doubt, Lanny Davis is advising Cohen on how best to rehabilitate himself and change his image from a sleazy pit bull who was willing to do anything for Trump (even take a bullet!) to a repentant henchman who now is eager to serve the truth.But if Dean was a torpedo that sank Nixon, Cohen is more an aircraft carrier. He probably has ammunition that can strike multiple Trump targets. His cooperation with prosecutors could dramatically reshape and perhaps expand the Trump investigations. He is someone that Trump ought to fear. There likely are bodies buried in Trumpland, and if you want to raise the dead, Cohen is the guy to see.